Non-Competes

TL;DR: Post-employment non-competes are generally not enforceable in California. Given how much content around tech entrepreneurship originates from California, you might get the impression that not having non-competes in startup employment agreements is the norm across the country. You’d be wrong.

The whole non-compete debate in tech circles is fun to watch. Certain people try to paint it in simplistic “good v. bad” terms. The champions of innovation who believe “talent should move freely,” v. the traditionalist ogres representing entrenched BigCo’s. But as you’ll hear me repeatedly say on this blog: watch incentives. Where you stand depends on where you sit. 

Imagine for a second that we’re sitting in a God-like seat, where we can push the population of a country in one of two directions.

Option A: People will have more babies, but die sooner.

Option B: People will have fewer babies, but live longer.

Now imagine there’s a debate among two sets of constituents as to which option should be pushed forward. The first group are the people currently living in that country. The second group are foreign shareholders in a conglomerate that sells (i) baby clothes, and (ii) coffins. Think there’s disagreement?

Get my point? Maybe a “Hunger Games” metaphor would’ve worked better. I’ll elaborate.

Ecosystem v. Individual Incentives

The debate over non-competes has a few core elements to it. First, it pits ecosystem v. individual incentives, which I’ve discussed in a few places on this blog. I’m fairly confident that if you remove the ability for employers and employees to agree (voluntarily) to have non-competes in their employment docs, the end-result is more companies and more bargaining power for employees (obviously); which is to say, it probably does net-out to faster ecosystem growth.

But if I’m an entrepreneur who has already started a company, I give far far more shits about the specific company I’ve sunk my sweat and tears into than about your “ecosystem.” Your ecosystem is not going to produce an ROI on my “one shot” investment.

However, if I’m a venture capitalist, angel investor, or run an accelerator, my ROI is tied to the ecosystem; I have portfolio, not “one shot” incentives. I benefit from incentivizing hyper-competition and the creation of new companies, even if it threatens the existence of those who are currently working on their “one shot.”

ps, it also increases the need for capital to fund talent wars. Watch incentives.

From an evolutionary perspective, you better believe it would help the human species if people died sooner and reproduced more. You also better believe the people currently alive might have a slightly different perspective on the matter.

So putting aside moralizing judgments, everyone discussing the non-compete issue needs to first acknowledge the reality of their misaligned incentives.

Grandstanding

Secondly, because so many people on the entrepreneurial/employer side, particularly in Silicon Valley (where there is an extremely^2 competitive labor market), are so concerned about being seen as “that awesome person/company that just LOVES employees and you really really really should want to work for,” there is very much a reluctance to speak honestly on this issue. You’ve got companies offering doggy daycare and daily massages to try to hold onto their roster. They sure as hell aren’t going to go on the record saying “yeah, it would be nice if we could have non-competes.”

So it doesn’t surprise me that most of the public content on the issue involves people grandstanding about the values of innovation, disruption, free talent flow, etc., and how they support outright bans on non-competes. The law (in California) is already there – they can’t have non-competes, and that’s not changing – so why on earth would I counter its logic publicly, when deviating from the script will hurt my recruiting efforts?

There’s a very similar dynamic going on here with the 90-day exercise period on employee options. Putting aside the legal and tax nuances around it, so much of the public content coming out of SV on it paints it as total BS and just a way for employers to “screw” employees.

Summary:

  1. Asking employees to commit to a 1-year non-compete is just employers “screwing” employees. Nothing more.
  2. Asking employees to exercise their options within 90 days of leaving the company, or forgo the equity, is also employers “screwing” employees. Nothing more.

Is not offering doggy day care “screwing” employees as well? Asking for a friend, in California.

“Non-competes and employee option expiration are outrageous! We’d NEVER do that to employees!”

Translation: “We’re hiring! Chef-prepared veganic meals daily. All you can drink Soylent.”

Employers (including current entrepreneurs) have wants and needs. Employees have wants and needs. Startup investors have wants and needs. And many of them conflict. Acknowledging it, instead of finger-pointing and grandstanding, makes debate possible.

Humanize the Issue

I’m very much a fan of humanizing complex business issues; which to me means distilling them down to basic norms and ethics of human interaction. It’s easy to get caught up in cold business calculus when you talk about “employers” and “employees,” instead of reducing the issue down to people simply bargaining with each other.

Say I’ve spent years building up a family restaurant, with all of my special recipes, business contacts, processes, etc., and I invite you to come work with me. I’m going to teach you everything about the business; all of my secrets. But to ensure I can trust that you aren’t just going to take everything I teach you and use it somewhere else, I ask you to agree not to compete with us for a year if you leave.

Am I an asshole? Or am I simply protecting myself somewhat from betrayal. I can think of lots of human scenarios in which this kind of bargain is perfectly acceptable and reasonable. And with my libertarian tendencies, I don’t feel comfortable with the government dictating that me and my prospective employee can’t simply agree among ourselves what the right bargain is.

And now we’ll have the necessary rebuttals.

But this isn’t about family restaurants, Jose. This is about Google and Apple trying to keep powerless employees from choosing where they want to work.

Is it really? You think the Pre-Series A entrepreneur with 10 employees isn’t exposed to a key employee walking with everything she’s learned and taking it somewhere else?  There are valid arguments for why non-competes need to be right-sized for the circumstances, and why perhaps very large corporations shouldn’t get the same benefits from them as smaller businesses. And also that lower-level staff should get more freedom than employees closer to core IP/trade secrets. Courts already think about them this way.

And let’s also stop playing the violins for a second. Are today’s tech employees, especially in startup ecosystems, really powerless?

But confidentiality provisions and other IP protections still protect companies, even without non-competes.

Trust me, it is 100x as expensive to prove in court that someone stole your trade secrets than it is to point to a paragraph in an employment agreement and be done with it. Google and Apple have the resources to fully enforce their IP confidentiality. Most small companies / startups do not. Today, total banning of non-competes may help Goliaths more than Davids.

But removing non-competes requires employers to hold onto their employees in other ways.

I get it. Government reduces the power of an employer, so the employee now has more leverage. Employee therefore gets better treatment. Wonderful. But the point of this post is that employees aren’t the only people in the business ecosystem that matter, and there are valid arguments on the other side that are worth hearing.

Non-Competes are the Norm. 

Outside of California, non-competes are the norm, and they can be valuable, among the many other bargaining mechanisms, between employers and employees. They can help provide a foundation of trust, which allows employers to invest in their employees for the long-term.

Maybe you’re so gung-ho on the total free flow of talent and “ecosystems” that you absolutely want to forgo non-competes. That’s perfectly fine. Every company is different, and has its own culture. But at least understand why your counterparts at other companies may think differently about the situation, and offer alternatives. That’s how healthy labor markets are built.

The right answer on non-competes probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two polarized sides. On the one hand, it is definitely unfair for a powerful 20,000 employee behemoth to be able to restrict even a secretary from working at a competitor. I think we can all agree on that, and the courts already do. But that doesn’t mean the same rules should be applied to the key employee at a 10-employee startup.

On the other hand, there is a valid argument that the level of hyper competition in Silicon Valley is not something other ecosystems should try to totally replicate. It may lead to talent wars, which waste resources on frivolous perks, and require larger rounds of capital. It may also hurt the ability of companies to invest in their talent for the long-term, because they’re constantly worried about that talent being bought out by a better capitalized competitor.

We should all agree that there are valid points to be made on both sides, and valid disagreement as to what a “healthy” startup ecosystem really looks like. The grandstanding and obfuscation of misaligned incentives is the problem.


Also published on Medium.

  • Paul Spitz

    The issue of non-competes is way bigger than just the tech startup world. Personally, I hate non-competes. I find they are generally done reflexively, rather than with a specific goal in mind, and almost always overreach. Going back to your restaurant example – does a waiter really need to sign a non-compete? Is the restaurant that fragile that if its busboy leaves for another restaurant, the entire enterprise will collapse? Don’t scoff – Jimmy Johns required its employees to sign non-competes (it no longer does). It’s a friggin’ fast food sandwich joint.

    Let’s step it up a notch, though, and consider a sales rep for a company. You might argue that it makes sense to tie that sales rep up for an entire year, so that he cannot solicit his old employer’s customers for his new employer. Seems reasonable, right? But the truth is, if his old employer can’t lock down those customer relationships within a couple of months of the sales rep leaving, does the employer really deserve any protection at all?

    I get the situation where someone leaves with key technology or some other legitimate trade secret. But tailor the non-compete to that specific situation, don’t make every single employee, no matter what the role, sign a non-compete.

    Meanwhile, the employee often can’t work anywhere for a long period of time. Suppose you couldn’t practice corporate law anywhere in Texas (or the US for that matter), for a year. What would you live on? People want to do what they do – a software engineer doesn’t want to work as a waiter for a year, waiting for the non-compete to expire. The tire salesman doesn’t want to force his family to relocate to another city, hundreds of miles away, so that he can put food on the table. You don’t want to be a personal injury lawyer for a year, waiting for your noncompete to expire, nor do you want to move to another state and have to take the bar, so that you can continue to practice corporate law.

    Here’s another aspect that bugs me – why should a non-compete apply if the employer terminates the employee? In all my years of practicing, I’ve never seen a non-compete have a carve-out for the situation where the termination is involuntary. That seems fundamentally unfair.

    I’d rather have employers base their employee retention on the quality of the work environment and perks, rather than fear that if the employee leaves, she’ll be unable to work for a year.

    • José Ancer

      The vast majority of my clients (entrepreneurs) worked at companies where they had non-competes, and it didn’t interfere with their ability to start new companies. They don’t say you can’t work anywhere, or do what you do – they say you can’t work at a company specifically in the same space for 1 year (usually), which in the vast majority of instances is quite narrow.

      But I agree with the idea of right-sizing the non-compete in the sense that a low-level admin person shouldn’t have one, and I say as much in this post. And there is also a good argument for why a massive company like Apple should have less protection than a smaller company for whom specific employees are a more crucial to their trade secrets/competitive advantage. Most courts have already “moderated” non-competes significantly in terms of how they are enforced, regardless of what the contracts say.

      My point is simply that going to the opposite extreme and completely banning them has very negative consequences as well – and people shouldn’t be so reflexive in concluding that any employer who wants a non-compete is an asshole and anti-employee. There are many contexts in which they make very good sense, and are totally reasonable.